Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet conjures cool cinematic worlds and challenging dance
A DanceHouse presentation. At the Vancouver Playhouse on Friday, September 28. Continues September 29
Here’s what the cutting edge of dance looks like, straight from New York City, by way of Europe: cinematic, fractured, and set to scores that throb with spoken word, industrial noise, and electronica.
The Big Apple’s Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet has brought three theatrical new pieces to town—all choreographed by hot young talent and all exploring chaos and order in the most thrilling, visceral ways.
The standout is the evening’s opener, with music and movement created by Brit (by way of Israel’s Batsheva Dance) sensation Hofesh Schechter. Violet Kid is an abstract, pummelling vision of humanity struggling against the almost Conradian horror of life. In sculptural huddles, dancers shrink against some unseen force, squatting, hunching, and hammering their feet, only occasionally synchronizing to rise and punch their fists collectively in the air.
Formations shift disorientingly during blackouts, and sometimes brutally familiar imagery emerges: in one frozen moment a man points a finger gun at another person slumped submissively on the floor; in another sequence, couples partner in a brutal, herky-jerky waltz, mashing their foreheads together, the men strangling at the women’s necks. Set to roaring electronica offset by ominous strings and Schechter’s own, ponderous musings (“I need to simplify”), it’s a thoroughly unsettling, intricately choreographed trip into the heart of darkness, building to a frantic crescendo.
As usual with Schechter’s choreography, it demands almost unthinkable endurance and core work from these ultra-pliable dancers, but still feels loose and explosive. Violet Kid does what contemporary dance does best: through exciting movement, it gets at the gnawing fear of the world today—that widespread feeling that we can’t really put into words but instantly recognize on-stage.
Violet Kid is followed by a much more fun, upbeat piece by rising Swedish star Alexander Ekman. In the tight, fast-paced Tuplet, the Nederlands Dans Theater and Cullberg Ballet alumnus plays with rhythm. Lit from above on white, rectangular mats, six dancers convulse and wiggle to their own spoken words over the speakers, amplified by percussion. In one experiment, they find dance signatures to their own names, repeating their moves as their voices sound over the speakers in increasingly randomized sequences. A standout is Jonathan Bond, who’s forced to jolt over and over to “Bond. Bond. Bond. Bond.” It’s a playful crowd-pleaser—full of nonverbal punchlines—that shows off the skill and individuality of this emphatically-not-cookie-cutter company.
The show wraps up with a piece by hometown hero Crystal Pite, who doesn’t hail from Europe, but certainly developed her voice there under William Forsythe. Her Grace Engine is the most cinematic piece of all, but in the least narrative way possible: she seems to take the visual gestures and imagery we all recognize from old films and then deconstructs them--shattering them, shuffling them, and re-organizing them into something chaotic and irrational.
The opening is pure, warped Pite: a man in socks walks across a shadowy stage, but his steps match the impossible, amplified sounds of heels clicking down pavement (like you might hear in a classic film noir). From here, the chugging soundtrack of train sounds starts up, and groups of running, torso-swivelling dancers move back and forth across the stage, sometimes pulling out of the huddle to mime silent screams and unheard words—expressions we recognize from melodrama, but which seem surreal out of context.
The ideas here are often confounding and sometimes don’t feel fully realized, especially in the final, mysterious multilimbed duet by B.C.’s Acacia Schachte and Korea’s Jin Young Won. But one of Grace Engine’s biggest strengths is its dramatically innovative lighting (by Jim French), where the sudden shifts from an overhead fluorescent to a row of headlights along the back wall to side spotlights can instantly change our perspective and the entire space around the dancers—much like a jump cut in film.
This piece, like the others on Cedar Lake’s program, is coolly atmospheric and jampacked with inventive choreography. But these works also challenge our views of dance and the world around us. Yes, as the New York company proves, dance this hip can also question our understanding of the universe. And apparently audiences like to be challenged: the show met with cheers.